In the era of pop-up restaurants and upscale street carts, are decor and food going through a divorce? Most restaurants are still designed to create a multisensory experience that reflects the meal and the diners themselves. But many of us are now searching out bowls of green Thai curry to eat while perched on wooden benches in South Park, and checking our Twitter feeds to see which four-course meal we'll next enjoy at a twice-weekly pop-up hosted in a faded Chinese joint in the Mission. The idea of great food in improbable surroundings has captured the public's imagination.
Two of the first San Francisco chefs to capitalize on this fascination were Katharine Zacher and Ryan Ostler, last of Broken Record and currently in residence at Bruno's, a Mission bar and nightclub that has just reintroduced food service. In the fall of 2008, having worked at restaurants with a combined Zagat score far into the three digits, the young cooks made news by contracting out kitchen duties for the Excelsior bar and running it as a separate enterprise. Even though the restaurant portion of Broken Record was cash only and rarely set diners back more than $10, Zacher and Ostler awed SF Weekly critic Matthew Stafford (see his June 3, 2009 review) with bar food like shrimp and crab gumbo, and house-made boar sausages made with cranberries and Shiraz.
But the pair burned out after nine months of working seven days a week. They left Broken Record and flew to Texas, where Ostler is from, to recuperate, spending the next three months taking a leisurely food tour of the Southern states.
When Zacher and Ostler returned, the owners of Bruno's approached them about doing the same thing they'd done at Broken Record for Bruno's, which was then food-free. (The club has had an off-again, on-again food program for years.) The owners, who freshened up the place when they took over three years ago, have shown themselves hospitable to pop-ups; for a few weeks this summer, the upstairs Pussycat Lounge hosted a series of dinners by OPENrestaurant. Now they've melded missions with Zacher and Ostler. Bruno's gets to draw in customers earlier in the evening for food, and the chefs, working as more or less independent contractors under the Bruno's name, get a more central venue, swanker surroundings, and a five-day workweek.
I visited the new Bruno's a couple of times over the past few weeks. If I ignored the tiger-striped carpeting — a raggedy Swingers-esque remnant from its mid-1990s phase as a neo–Rat Pack supperclub serving high-end comfort food — I had to say: The 60-year-old club can still call forth that old Hollywood magic. The ruddy wood glows. The fire flickers. From the burgundy banquettes, facing the bar, my view was of silhouetted drinkers outlined by whiskey-filtered light. It had been ages since I'd seen Bruno's this empty, and I had forgotten how well the room had aged.
So when I switched my attention to look over a menu of dishes normally associated with Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, the disconnect between decor and food hit. Barbecued ribs? Po'boys? "World-famous" Frito pie? Sure, the prices were great — sandwiches around $8, entrees around $14 — but given the swank surroundings, the menu concept seemed suspect. Were the chefs upscaling Southern road food by festooning dishes in truffle oil or molecular-gastronomy emulsions and powders? Or would the mashup be ironic, the culinary equivalent of 2005's prep-school kids in trucker caps?
Then the first dishes arrived, and I realized: neither. Ostler and Zacher were upscaling the food from the inside out, respectfully applying their formal training to American classics without making a fuss about it. The mac ' n' cheese ($5) was both classic (bubbling with Cheddar-golden sauce, breadcrumbs on top) and beautifully done (firm pasta, a bright tang to the cheese). A side of greens with bacon ($3) was splashed with just the right amount of vinegar to offset its earthy, smoky, and bitter notes. The oysters in the po'boy ($8) were fried just long enough to crisp their cornmeal coatings and leave the centers as quivery as panna cotta. The cooks made one nod to pure California cuisine with a salad of frilly arugula and three kinds of creamy-centered beets ($6), but tweaked it subtly with Indian spices and a tart yogurt drizzle.
Not everything came together. One night's special, a chicken-fried steak ($14) the size of a Little Leaguer's baseball mitt, had been fried so long that the hot oil had permeated the crust and toughened up the meat, and the cream gravy tasted like black pepper and black pepper alone. The chicken-sausage gumbo ($11) was based on a coffee-colored roux whose deep but one-dimensional flavor needed to be fleshed out with more aromatics. And while the chefs thankfully played it straight with most of their road food, the Frito pie ($5) suffered from its preciousness, served in a little white crock with a precise dollop of sour cream on top. Sure, the brick-red beef chili thrummed with heat — it was damn good — but it sat too long on the Fritos and turned them all soggy, something that doesn't seem to happen when you eat Frito pie out of the bag. (Well, okay, when you eat it quickly enough.)
Ostler says he wants to focus on the wide range of Southern food — all-American food, actually. That means he plays no regional favorites when it comes to barbecue, though the Texas in him is strong enough to ship post oak (a Southern species common in many Texas smokerooms) to San Francisco for his brisket. I didn't get to try the brisket — the menu changes frequently — but his pork ribs ($15), smoked over a combination of applewood and oak, were positively glamorous. Thickly rubbed with spices, their smoke flavor present but not ashy, the ribs had been smoked long enough to melt the collagen, but short enough to leave the meat tender and glistening.
Not surprisingly, considering that the cooks met on the pastry team at Boulevard, any dish that begins with a lump of dough comes out tasting the most refined. Flecked with green chiles, the hush puppies ($5) had the delicate crumb of a just-fried cake doughnut. The puff pastry on an Indian-spiced vegetarian pot pie ($12) broke apart in the finest, downiest flakes. And after my first meal, I learned that when the server set down the oven-gilded biscuit ($2), everything else on the table should be pushed aside. The hot biscuit had a supernatural lightness, and the seemingly hard crust dimpled at the touch of a thumb. I spread honey butter on each chunk I pulled off and downed it greedily, recognizing that at any moment the biscuit would cool down and re-enter the mortal realm.
Straightforward American food doesn't need to be backed up with gingham tablecloths and "Don't Mess with Texas" posters. Nevertheless, the food and decor charm in different ways, like casting Clint Eastwood in a Rob Marshall musical. Ostler says that he and Zacher are happy to be thought of as Bruno's chefs instead of their own, independent operation. But the success of this particular venture depends on just the opposite: that San Franciscans are so enamored of eating upscale food in downscale places that we'll also be willing to do the reverse.